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The cost of a Horluck ferry ride may drop

"Ferry commuters could soon pay less for a ride on Horluck Transportation vessels, even though local and state officials this week squelched owner Hilton Smith's search for financial help for his flagging fleet.Contrary to Smith's request, the Bremerton Port Commissioners unanimously decided March 28 to continue billing Horluck for the use of the Bremerton floating dock, which was moved while the Bremerton Transportation Center was under construction. Their decision came one day before the state Utilities and Transportation Commission was to preside over a public hearing at which a flat-out denial of Smith's request for a 50 percent fare hike was predicted.But before the commission could meet, Smith formally withdrew the fare request March 22 when the Mary L, Horluck's fastest passenger ferry, returned to the Port Orchard-Bremerton run.I withdrew my request because I heard a rumor that Kitsap Transit was going to roll back its increased fare rates, Smith explained.Dan Kermode, an accountant with the Utilities and Transportation Commission, analyzed Horluck's financial situation and decided to recommend that the commission refuse higher fares. Smith originally asked to raise cash-paying passenger fares from $1.50 to $2.25. Kermode said he informed Smith of his decision and, days later, Smith withdrew his request.Kermode said Horluck is projected to lose this year about 30 percent of its 1999 ridership. However, Horluck has also cut its operating hours for 2000 by about one-third and, in a prospective revenue and expense analysis, that indicates Horluck doesn't need a fare hike, Kermode said.The Port Commissioners rebuffed Smith two weeks after he asked them to either stop billing Horluck for the use of the Bremerton floating dock or charge Horluck at a reduced price and release him from any debt to the port. Port officials reacted coolly to the request, which came a few hours after Coast Guard inspectors shut down two of Horluck's vessels for environmental and safety reasons. Smith said his company has been losing money since January, and any financial assistance would keep his ferry business afloat. The commissioners' refusal was guided by port attorney Gordon Walgren, who said state law doesn't allow any local government to extend credit, loans or gifts of funds to a private individual or organization. After voting on the matter, the commissioners decided to inform Smith of the denial in letter form.Some of the rumors Smith said he heard about Kitsap Transit fare rollbacks proved to be true this week. John Clauson, Kitsap Transit's service development director, confirmed that the agency could make reductions in pass prices.Clauson said Transit plans to ask its board at an April 5 meeting to reduce the agency's monthly pass price from $50 to $40, and whittle the reduced-fare price from $25 to $20 for seniors, children, disabled and low-income riders. He said there will also be a recommendation that the monthly worker-driver bus ticket be reduced from $60 to $50.Clauson said potential fare reductions aren't related to complaints from Smith, who claims his passenger-only ferry business lost $17,000 in January and again in February because of major dips in ridership. Smith said Horluck lost about one-third of its passengers since Kitsap Transit decided in January to double fares and cut service by 25 percent. Those actions were taken with the voter-approved repeal of the state motor vehicle excise tax in January, which slashed Kitsap Transit's budget by 43 percent. But now Transit coffers seem to be bouncing back faster than expected, allowing pass prices to be possibly reduced, Clauson said.One reason why Kitsap Transit's budget is healthier than expected is state sales tax equalization funds, which traditionally was funded by the vehicle excise tax. In their original budget forecast, transit officials assumed equalization funds wouldn't filter back to Kitsap County because of Initiative 695. Clauson said transit officials lobbied the state for the funds and even threatened a lawsuit. Ultimately, the efforts paid off and the funds will flow back to Kitsap County in the form of $400,000 every three months. We're not sure how long (the payments) will last, Clauson added."

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